Obituary: Professor Murdoch Mitchison ScD, FRS, FRSE, zoologist and biologist

Professor Murdoch Mitchison ScD, FRS, FRSE, zoologist and biologist. Born: 11 June, 1922, in Oxford. Died: 17 March, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 88.

Professor Murdoch Mitchison was a zoologist and pioneer in cellular biology who shared his immense expertise and enthusiasm with students at Edinburgh University over 35 years.

Regarded as a world authority on cell reproduction he was also Dean of the university's Faculty of Science and academic advisor to the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

But his encyclopaedic knowledge stretched far beyond his own professional field, embracing a love of history, architecture and gardening, the latter fully indulged both at his own home at Ormiston and within the university where his legacy includes the gardens of Pollock Halls.

Born into a family of intellectuals and scientists, he was the son of MP Dick Mitchison QC and the novelist Naomi Mitchison and the grandson of Edinburgh physiologist Dr John Scott Haldane who co-founded the Journal of Hygiene.

Educated at Winchester College and Trinity College, Cambridge, he originally intended to become a doctor - an ambition he ditched rather smartly after an episode that necessitated a search among a bucketful of limbs for the precise arm he was due to dissect. He decided then that anatomy was not for him. However, he went on to gain a first in zoology and spent his early career as a biological physicist.

Called up at 19, he was posted to Army Operational Research, initially as a civilian followed by rapid officer training which saw him become a lieutenant at 21 and captain at 22. He worked with the 8th Army in Italy where, designated officer in charge of mud, his job was to ascertain whether the mud was deep enough for the tanks to roll through the rice fields of the Piedmont.

Following the German surrender in May 1945, he and two or three fellow officers had the honour of liberating a small town in the Veneto, in the foothills of the Alps.

Greeted by the peal of church bells and celebrations in the streets, he later recalled making a speech in bad Italian and dancing with the "capa of the partigiani who had live grenades round her belt, fortunately not held by the pins."

By the time he was demobbed, in 1946, he had risen to the rank of major. Over the next eight years he became a research scholar at Trinity College and then a fellow, moving to Edinburgh University in 1953 as a lecturer and then reader in zoology.

In 1947 he married Rosalind Wrong, always known as Rowy, and shortly after they arrived in the capital she became an assistant in Edinburgh University's history department.She would later be appointed professor of social history and was described as the 20th century's foremost exponent of the social history of Scotland.

Mitchison, who studied the biology of the cell in an era before the introduction of the electron microscope, was an academic by nature and had an incredible eye for detail. He was professor of zoology at Edinburgh for 25 years from 1963-88, a member of the university court for several years in the 1970s and 1980s and Dean of the Science Faculty between 1984 and 1985.

Throughout his career he produced dozens of papers in addition to his classic volume, The Biology Of The Cell Cycle, published in 1971, five years after he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1978.

A member of Academia Europea and the Scottish Marine Biological Association, he was also an executive committee member of the International Society for Cell Biology and president of the British Society for Cell Biology from 1974 to 1977.

During the 1970s he was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and sat on the Working Group on Biological Manpower from 1968-71. And for three years in the early 1980s he was on the Advisory Committee on Safety of Nuclear Installations.

Mitchison was academic advisor to Nobel prize-winner Paul Nurse, who described the six years he spent with him as pivotal to his entire research career, praising his mentor as an astonishingly generous supervisor, happy to give hours of his time each week in discussions.

Outside academia he was a keen traveller, especially to places of architectural or cultural importance, including Japan, Turkey, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.

And since 1975 he had lived at Ormiston, East Lothian in a house he designed on nine acres of land shared with friends and colleagues, including Professor Aubrey Manning. The move out of Edinburgh was to accommodate his desire for a larger garden and, in typically meticulous fashion, he had previously taken numerous soil samples from boreholes to ensure the soil on the new plot was acceptable. The result was a fabulous garden.

An innovative gardener who knew the Latin names of every species, he used a broad brush approach with swathes of crocuses, large beds bursting with azaleas and big, showy shrubs.

He also utilised his horticultural and architectural knowledge during a decade as chair of the university's major buildings committee, which involved planting around new properties, something that also fascinated him.

With his wife he enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends and was a gracious host, always keen to ply guests with a dram, contentedly observing the intellectual conversation that flowed over the supper table.

Widowed in 2002, he is survived by his children Sally, Neil, Harriet and Amanda, his brothers Denis and Avrion, and sisters Lois and Val.